Category Archives: Food

Helicopter Tour

[the scene: a muddy airstrip in rural England. A pilot dressed in ragged khakis shepherds a group of assorted tourists to his waiting helicopter. Some of the tourists seem reluctant.]

[pilot] Step right up, folks, this this is the best chance you will ever have to get a bird’s-eye view of the magnificent rolling hills of Yorkshire! Just twenty bucks, a price that can’t be beat!

[tourist, a querulous elderly man] How do we know this machine of yours is safe?

[pilot, smarmily ingratiating] Never had a mishap, and I’ve had ‘er up hundreds of times!

[A portly German man wearing a curled white wig approaches the pilot, huffing and puffing]

My good man, I understand that you have a pianoforte on board your craft. Can that be true?

[pilot] Why as a matter fact, I do! It’s just a spinet, but I’m sure it will agree with you. I do keep it well-tuned and tempered!

[The German man pays his fare and the passengers are escorted into the helicopter by the pilot. Once the aircraft has gained elevation the pilot banks the ‘copter over the rough terrain]

Not as green as it usually is down there, but we’ve been enduring an oven-like drought!

Larry

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On Tamales

The first time I ever ate a real tamale was a revelatory experience. Such a wonderful amalgam of corn, meat, and vegetables!

This culinary exposure took place quite a few years ago in a Mexican village along the Gulf Coast. There are many street-food vendors in just about any Mexican town; I was hungry and took notice of a ten-year-old boy standing on the sidewalk next to a galvanized trash can.  A tiny wood fire beneath the can (which sat on a few bricks) seemed to be making something boil within. I was intrigued.

The boy looked at me hopefully and said “Tamales, señor?”

“Let me take a look!” I replied.

The boy removed the trashcan’s lid and showed me ranks of vertically-oriented tamales arranged in a rack above a simmering pot of water.   A marvelously savory odor was conveyed by the steam rolling out of the can.

I had eaten bad canned tamales before, paper-wrapped pale orange concoctions which bear as as much resemblance to a real tamale as Spaghetti-Os do to home-made spaghetti. The real thing, I found, belonged to another category altogether. Unwrapping the steamed-soft corn-husk wrapper I found a neat oval of what looked like fine-textured cornbread. The filling was a simple mixture of cubed pork and green salsa.

That day I vowed to learn how to cook tamales.

Last night Bev and I made a batch of tamales using commercial masa harina, a corn flour made from nixtamalized white corn. Nixtamalization is the ancient process of treating corn kernels with a base solution, originally ash-water. What this does is make the corn more nutritious by freeing up previously unavailable amino acids and vitamins. This was a New World culinary invention which unfortunately didn’t accompany corn when the grain entered the continents of the Old World.

The corn husks used to wrap tamales are pleasant to work with. Lesser-quality husks are ripped into slender strips which are just right for tying off the ends of the tamales. First the corn husks are steamed in a pan in order to soften them:

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Bev had previously prepared a filling mixture which had cooled by the time we were ready to make the tamales. It’s a mixture of chopped vegetables:

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While Bev was chopping vegetables I had mixed up a batch of dough in the food processor; it’s just masa harina, stock, and a mixture of butter and shortening. The texture is like that of cookie dough:

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A couple of spoonfuls of dough is spread out in the middle of corn husk and filling is applied:

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The husk is rolled up and the ends are twisted shut and held by strips of torn husk tied securely. The husk ties are surprisingly strong and quite pleasing to work with:

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Water has been brought to a slow boil in a large stock-pot which has a folding vegetable steamer in the bottom to keep the tamales out of the water:

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It is very satisfying to see the assembled tamales gathered in the steamer awaiting their collective fate!

The tamales don’t take all that long to steam, perhaps forty-five minutes. They are done when the husk will peel cleanly from the cooked masa. Here’s a finished tamale with sour cream and green tomatillo salsa:

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Here’s a closer look at the corn masa after it has been steamed. The surface takes an impression from the grooved surface of the enfolding corn husk which pleases me mightily. The texture doesn’t contribute to the taste but it does gratify the eye:

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It’s true that tamales are quite a bit of work, one reason we don’t make them all that often. It’s almost as easy to make a large batch as it to make a small one, and tamales reheat beautifully in a microwave. The corn husk wrappers protect the tender and moist corn masa and therefore tamales keep well. I’ve read that they are good after being frozen and thawed, but ordinarily they get eaten up rather quickly!

Larry

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Teff Pancakes

Last night I was pondering in a culinary mode. What to cook? Something new would be nice, I thought. Prospecting in the kitchen cupboards I came across a sack of teff flour, something I’ve never tasted. I knew that teff originated in the highlands of Ethiopia, but there were no Ethiopians handy to answer that crucial question: what do you do with this obscure grain?

Whenever Ethiopians are thin on the ground I gravitate towards Google, that fount of information which increasingly is replacing my memory. There I found a recipe from the New York Times which looked interesting:

Teff And Oatmeal Pancakes

We had no blueberries, but I figured frozen cranberries would be a good substitute. Twenty minutes later I had two meals’ worth of nice-looking pancakes cooked up, and another twenty minutes saw half of them consumed. I’m not sure that I could detect whatever difference using teff flour might have made in the taste of the pancakes, but I do believe it’s generally worthwhile to vary ingredients. We might as well make good use of the global food distribution network before it crumbles and we are reduced to winnowing bluegrass seeds in the toxic breeze!

Here’s a shot of a plate of leftover pancakes. I thought that they were quite photogenic!

teff-pancake

Larry

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Agave Flowers And Seeds

Driving into Southeast Arizona you can’t help but notice the agave stalks, no matter what time of year it is. The dead stalks, some over twenty feet tall, provide vertical accents to the landscape. These succulent plants are mostly Palmer’s Agave (Agave palmeri).

I enjoy seeing these odd plants, common as they are. There are several surrounding the house where I’m staying this summer.

Agaves live for ten to forty years and then die, sending up a fat asparagus-like flower-stalk which supports gracefully-curved branches. Each branch is terminated with flower-clusters which attract insects, humming-birds, and bats. The flowering period lasts for a couple of summer months. Here’s a typical stalk I photographed last June from my back porch. A municipal building can be seen in the background:

I really wanted to examine these flowers and photograph a few, but they were all out of reach! This was frustrating. I finally decided to cut one down. A nearby vacant lot had two agaves growing side by side.

One morning I walked over to the vacant lot and pulled one of the stalks over, bending it until it broke. I know this was trespassing and willful destruction of someone’s property, but I quickly contrived several convincing rationalizations.

I snipped off a flower cluster and took it back home, leaving the remainder to wither and die without having had the dim vegetative satisfaction of successfully setting seed. Doubtless the local javelinas which prowl the neighborhood at night will make short work of them.

Such an odd flower! There are no petals; the reddish tint seen from a distance is provided by the pistil and stamen stalks. The flower exudes a potent odor which attracts pollinators. Petals are superfluous when much of the pollination happens in the dark! These flowers are at the peak of their bloom. Notice the yellow pollen grains:

A couple of months passed, and I noticed that the agave seed pods were ripening. I was curious about the arrangement of seeds in an agave pod, but I was reluctant to pull down another woody stalk just to satisfy my curiosity.

A few days ago I was walking along a canyon slope overlooking Bisbee. I came upon one of the numerous old concrete house foundations which are so common around here. I have wondered how the inhabitants of the houses which presumably rested on these foundations accessed these aerie-like sites, as no access roads remain. Steps from below, perhaps?

This foundation is near the ridge-top, and the strong winds which sluice through the canyon evidently had toppled an agave growing from some concrete rubble. The seed-pods seemed to be still developing, so I concluded some connection to the disturbed roots had survived. The top of the stalk extended out of reach over the slope, but I managed to pull the stalk around so that I could cut off a pod-laden branchlet.

The pods are segmented into three chambers, and they average about 2-1/2″ long:

I cut a pod open and found these closely-packed seeds, hundreds of them in each pod. Most of the ripening seeds were black, but others were thinner and white. I suspect the white ones are unpollinated seed embryos:

The texture of the seed-coats was interesting, rather like pebble-finished leather:

I’m curious about the culinary potential of agave seeds. According to one source the Apaches made some use of ground agave seeds, although the major food produced from agaves was the starchy core mass roasted in pits.

Perhaps I’ll harvest and grind some agave seeds later this fall!

Larry

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Filed under Arizona, Food, Natural History, Photos

Fat Pepitas

This evening Bev and I were in the kitchen preparing a large Turban Squash for the oven. She halved the grotesque creature with her four-inch knife and I scooped out the seeds. A dialog:

Larry: “Aren’t these the fattest, plumpest squash seeds you’ve ever seen?”

Bev: “Hmm… maybe we should roast them…”

Larry: “Yeah, I could stand to eat some big fat pepitas!”

I seasoned the seeds lightly with Hungarian paprika and home-made Garam Masala, then spread them out in a buttered 9″ cake pan. Right now they are nestled in the oven next to some potatoes along with some chicken for the collies.

Pepita is Spanish for “little seeds”, by the way.

Here they are in all of their rawly glistening fat glory:

Larry

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Jamaican Vomiting Sickness

The house where Bev and I are staying is near the northeast edge of Bisbee; it’s a rental house perched halfway up a canyon slope. Former renters often leave imperishable food items behind in the cupboards. This afternoon I was looking for a can of coconut milk in one of the cabinets, as I had a hankering for some Thai food.

I never did find the coconut milk, but I did find a large can containing a food I have never encountered. Have you ever heard of the ackee fruit? It’s a tropical Jamaican fruit and the can looks like this:

I held the can in my hand and pondered it. The expiration date was troubling: July, 2010. After reading about ackees at Wikipedia, I was anxious to see what the fruit tastes like. It’s the state fruit of Jamaica, after all — it has to be at least interesting and intriguing!

I decided that there was no good reason to keep the can around, since the expiration date was so far in the past. I decided to open it and try the fruit. The can wasn’t expanded and bulging, and when the can-opener pierced the lid of the can there wasn’t a disturbing WHOOSH of noisome iridescent gas. Encouraging signs!

I looked at the contents of the can:

Hmm… it looked like fragments of the fruit’s flesh, and they really didn’t look much like the picture on the can’s label. I gingerly tasted a piece of the brined fruit. Not very sweet, but with an unctuous quality rather like the taste and feel of ripe avocado flesh.

Was this flesh ripe, though? I recalled a portion of the Wikipedia article which described problems with canned ackees some years ago. Evidently some cans contained unripe flesh, and that flesh is toxic. The problem was cleared up and canned ackees were allowed to enter the United States in 2005. The condition caused by eating unripe ackee fruit is known as the “Jamaican Vomiting Sickness”.

The fruit in the can seemed ripe. Surely in the period between 2005 and 2010 the Jamaican cannery folks had perfected the technique of canning safe ackee fruits. Then an image arose in my mind — a dreadlocked Rastafarian cannery worker with a joint dangling from his lip as he casually sorted achee fruit while listening to a tape of Bob Marley blasting away in the background.

Surely not!

I ate a couple more fragments of ackee (it certainly tasted ripe!) and decided to call it a day. Bev refused to try it at all, but she tends to be rather picky about expiration dates, spoilage, and such matters.

I’ll report back on the results of my experiment with a new tropical fruit. Perhaps I’d better put the open can in the refrigerator!

Larry

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Mournful Wails From the Oven

Lately I’ve been baking quite often, creating variations of classic recipes for basic foodstuffs such as French bread, cinnamon rolls, and banana bread. I’ve had to adjust my techniques and my intuitive by-guess-and-by-gosh measurements to the local altitude, which is about a mile above sea level. I’ve also become a bit careful about plunging my hands into the dark recesses of bowls in a cupboard and within flour-sacks — scorpions lurk in such places from time to time.

I’m particularly fond of my invisible flocks of domesticated single-celled fungi. They are my partners in culinary crime and I am quite grateful for the services they provide, which include flatulent emissions of CO2 gas. The interaction of fungal farts with the gluten in elastic wheat dough is a crucial component of successful bread baking, a partnership which has existed for thousands of years.

Over the years I’ve spent quite a few hours observing and classifying various strains of Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the ubiquitous brewer’s yeast used both in bread baking and in the fermentation of certain beers. Although in my baking and brewing experiences I had come to think of the tiny fungi as willful beasts which had to be coaxed and cajoled into satisfying my needs, under a microscope the organisms looked blandly ovoid, without much character to speak of.

My views of these single-celled fungi were greatly enhanced by a chance discovery and acquisition several years ago.

I happened to be on foot in a poor district of St. Louis, Missouri one fine October afternoon when I realized that I was seriously lost. The twisting lanes and alleys had defeated my rudimentary sense of direction and I sat down on a park bench next to a sleeping beggar. While I contemplated my options I happened to notice a shabby storefront across the street. I was startled, and thought, “Could that stuffed figure hanging in the store window actually be a dusty and ancient griffin?”

My curiosity was aroused as, after all, I’ve only seen a griffin on a lamentably small number of occasions. I crossed the street, narrowly avoiding a collision with an insane bicyclist, and opened the massive creaky door of the shop. All was in shadows within, and I called out:

“Is there anyone here?”

I heard a door open quietly in the back of the shop and a robed figure emerged from the dimness. The proprietor appeared to be Chinese; his robe was decorated with faded Chinese calligraphy and his beard was thin and wispy, but quite long. Oddly enough, he held a Turkish narghile in his hand, a water-pipe which appeared to be loaded with tobacco. I could smell the sweetish odor of the oily tendrils of smoke which drifted languidly from the glass bowl of the pipe.

The bald and wizened man chuckled and said, “My first customer of the day! How might I serve you, my pale friend?”

“I am curious about the creature hanging in your window — is it indeed a griffin?”

The shopkeeper smiled as he ran his hand lightly over the dusty feathers of the embalmed creature. “Yes, this is one of the very few surviving specimens of the Moroccan sub-species. The Bedouin tribesmen hunted them unmercifully and with little thought for the future, as they were essential for certain Sufi rituals. The beaks, claws, and feathers of the Saharan griffins emit a very potent odor when burned, an incense powerful enough to draw djinns from far and wide.”

I must admit that I was fascinated by these details. I asked the shopkeeper:

“So is the griffin extinct now?”

“Odd that you should ask, my inquisitive friend. I happen to have the sole remaining griffin confined in a bamboo cage in my back room. The creature was born in the Caucasus several centuries ago and spent several unpleasant years in P.T. Barnum’s sideshow before I acquired custody of him during a late-night Mah Jong session.”

“Can I see him?”

The shopkeeper smiled ruefully and said, “Oh, my curious friend, I’m afraid that this is not possible. The sight of a human other than myself would be a fatal blow to the aged creature. He believes that our race is extinct, aside from myself, and disillusioning him would not be wise. The beast is living his waning years eating a diet composed mostly of pigeons, rats, and curly dock leaves; I keep him fed and he spends his hours reminiscing about past glories and triumphs. That griffin might outlive me, though!”

I tried to conceal my disappointment. I had my camera with me — what an opportunity that could have been! I can count on the fingers of one hand the chances I’ve had to photograph mythical creatures. My thoughts strayed to that incident in the Appenines, my sole encounter with a basilisk.

The kindly shopkeeper looked sympathetic and said, “I can tell that you are a man with a keen interest in the natural world. I have something in my store-room which just might interest you.”

With a swish of his silken robes the man left the room, returning a short time later with an ebony box cradled in his arms. He deposited the box, which had tarnished brass hardware, on the counter next to the cash register.

The shopkeeper plucked a small brass key from a pocket hidden in the folds of his robes. He opened the glossy black box and withdrew an antique brass microscope.

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He asked me, “Are you familiar with the career of Carl Zeiss? This is a rare example of the output of his firm during a particularly innovative period.”

I examined the optical instrument, which was flawlessly constructed, and said, “Oh, sure, I’m familiar with Carl Zeiss. The company he founded is still producing top-quality optical instruments, as far as I know.”

The shopkeeper said, “You may not know of Mr. Zeiss’s partner, Ernst Abbe. He was another fine optician and optical theoretician, and he had a particular interest in natural history, especially in the microscopic examination of single-celled organisms. Mr. Abbe was concerned that the education of children in such subjects was being neglected. He invented a very unique type of microscope which he called the Anthroposcope, an instrument designed to make visible certain little-known segments of the electromagnetic spectrum. These normally invisible frequencies allow the viewer to perceive the emotional states of organisms which had hitherto been thought to have no mental or emotional life at all!”

I said, “This sounds like pseudoscientific bullshit to me, but I’m willing to take a chance! How much do you want for the Anthroposcope?”

The shopkeeper looked me in the eye, clasped my hand, and said, “I feel that this instrument belongs with you, my friend. Take it as a gift from a fellow student of the marvels of this world!”

I thanked the man profusely and, after asking directions, drove home to my sanctum. The Anthroposcope provided me with many insights into the private lives of my friends the yeasts.

Here’s a typical domestic view showing the interactions of several yeast cells:

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Notice the gaseous outbursts, the single-celled flatulence of the creatures.

Seeing such images increased the empathy I felt for the tiny fungi. I began involuntarily wincing as I slid pans full of bread dough into the blazing heat of my gas oven. I imagined that I could hear the shrieks and screams of the innocent organisms as they died a painful and agonized death.

I began to rationalize, just as human carnivores have done for ages in order to keep guilt at bay. After all, I had provided food and shelter to these fungi and treated them humanely while they were alive, and they wouldn’t have been nearly so numerous without my assiduous care.

I was reminded of the Lewis Carroll poem The Walrus And The Carpenter, a grimly humorous tale which deals with similar issues. Here are three stanzas from that poem:


“It seems a shame,” the Walrus said,
“To play them such a trick,
After we’ve brought them out so far,
And made them trot so quick!”
The Carpenter said nothing but
“The butter’s spread too thick!”

“I weep for you,” the Walrus said:
“I deeply sympathize.”
With sobs and tears he sorted out
Those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket-handkerchief
Before his streaming eyes.

“O Oysters,” said the Carpenter,
“You’ve had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?’
But answer came there none–
And this was scarcely odd, because
They’d eaten every one.

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Larry

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